Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Laying Claim to a Little Paradise

David Gilmour made Wakaya a posh resort. Now Fijians want it back.

Foreigners have always found it hard to resist the siren song of the Fijian isles. And the locals have always found it just as tough to repel them. Take the island of Wakaya, a 2,200-acre emerald of lush jungle greens and chalk-white beaches that rises from the Koro Sea's shark-rife waters about an hour's flight from Suva, the Fijian capital. It is today wreathed in those same lagoony hues of aqua and turquoise that Captain Bligh, cut loose from the mutinous Bounty in 1789, skimmed when seeking refuge in Wakaya's bay. For Bligh, it was not to be. When native warriors aimed their canoes at his small open boat, the captain surmised their intentions -- as he later wrote in his diary, "not necessarily of the most friendly variety" -- and retreated. Now, David Gilmour, the Canadian financier who has owned Wakaya since 1972, has his own troubles with locals: a group of Fijians who argue the island was fraudulently sold two centuries ago, and are laying claim to it.

Times have changed since the Fijian islanders ate their interlopers. Rather than warriors, Gilmour, who has converted Wakaya into a luxurious five-star refuge for the extraordinarily rich, may soon be confronted by lawyers. And he is not alone. Mel Gibson recently bought yet another disputed island and is contending with similar claims. But Gilmour is not known to shrink from a fight, especially one with so much at stake.

Now in his mid-70s, Gilmour was the long-time partner of Peter Munk, with whom he founded such ventures as Barrick Gold, the mining powerhouse, and real estate giant TrizecHahn. Still, wealth has not always sheltered foreigners in Fiji. A coup attempt in 2000 spread from Suva into the archipelago's far-flung resorts -- including the seizure by insurgents of Laucala Island, then owned by the family of U.S. publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes. And when another group of insurgents raided Turtle Island, they held its American owner and a number of guests hostage for some two months.

Even so, Fiji has remained a mostly tranquil island paradise since it first began to boom as a tourist destination in the 1960s. And few resorts can rival the Wakaya Club's guest list of starlets and millionaires. It is where Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel honeymooned, and where Keith Richards suffered his concussive fall from a tree last spring. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have holidayed there -- as have Michelle Pfeiffer, Jim Carrey, Céline Dion, Rupert Murdoch and Renée Zellweger. When Nicole Kidman departed Wakaya with old friend Russell Crowe in 2001, she is reported to have just missed her ex-husband, Tom Cruise, who flew in on the island's own private airline just days later.

Indeed, the island, which accepts just 24 guests at a time -- each of whom enjoys a 12-to-one staff-to-guest ratio -- is perhaps the most exclusive holiday destination in the world. As the resort's slogan says, this sprawling, thatch-roofed Xanadu is where "people who have it all go to get away from it all." Eight well-appointed, 1,650-sq.-foot cottages sit against the sea or the island's idyllic gardens, and set guests back up to $7,600 a night. A ninth cottage -- the Governor's Bure -- boasts 2,400 sq. feet and is staffed with butler, laundry service, chef and chauffeur. Alcohol is unlimited. The food is largely Wakaya-grown, cultivated from island corners teeming with wild boars and deer.

For Gilmour, the resort is just one in a string of business successes. He discovered the island in 1971 during a flight over Fiji, and purchased Wakaya the following year for $1 million. By then, he had already confronted both business zeniths and nadirs alongside his one-time University of Toronto chum Munk. Gilmour -- from Winnipeg, the son of a military man and an opera singer -- was something of an outsider on Bay Street. Clairtone, his first venture with Munk, was a hi-fi manufacturer that by the mid-'60s had turned the pair into the wunderkinds of Canadian business. When it went bust in 1971, the two managed to salvage enough money to start Southern Pacific Hotel Corp., snapping up properties around the world.

Gilmour's swashbuckling over the next three decades helped lead to the founding of Barrick Gold, TrizecHahn, and eventually to another Fiji-based triumph. Gilmour was watching Bill and Melinda Gates -- who honeymooned on Wakaya in 1994 -- playing a round on the island's nine-hole golf course, when he noticed them sipping from bottles of French-imported mineral water. Gilmour realized there was likely a purer source nearby. Within days, he'd been alerted to a recently discovered underground reservoir of 450-year-old rainwater on Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. Gilmour arranged to tap the reserve and established Fiji Water, marketing it through word-of-mouth and savvy product placements in U.S. films and television shows. He sold the company in 2004 -- reportedly for about $60 million.

He has also seen tragedy. In 1983, Munk's son Anthony found Gilmour's daughter Erin -- the two wealthy offspring were said to have been dating at the time -- in a pool of blood, the victim of a still-unsolved knife attack.

Through all the highs and lows, Gilmour's heart always rested with the coral-crested island and his boutique resort for the stars. Though he now spends much of his time in Palm Beach, Fla., and is no longer involved in many of his former businesses, Gilmour continues to operate the Wakaya Club.

Now an indigenous group is preparing a case against the Fijian government in hopes of getting the aging tycoon to cough up his paradise (or at least share its wealth). Francis Waqa Sokonibogi, a Fijian activist who is spearheading the legal case, claims the group has documents proving the group's ancestors were duped out of the island, which was sold by a local chieftain in the 1840s for a single shilling. The government of the day, he says, ignored their protesting forefathers. "We are trying to do this to prevent future coups and unrest," says Sokonibogi, who muses that the Wakayans could one day form a partnership with Gilmour. Yet Doug Carlson, the resort's chief executive, holds that at the time of its original sale Wakaya had not been inhabited since Komai-na-Ua, its ruler in the early 19th century, led its people to commit mass suicide by jumping off a 180-m cliff rather than surrender to approaching enemies.

That version of events is in keeping with what is known of Fiji prior to its becoming a British colony in 1874, when chieftains engaged in internecine battles to evict the inhabitants of neighbouring islands before selling their land to foreigners engaged in the lucrative coconut and sandalwood trades. "There's historical instances of islands being sold for a couple of hundred muskets," says Cheyenne Morrison, an Australian private island broker. Mago Island, purchased by Mel Gibson in late 2004 for a reported US$15 million, is said to have been originally sold for 2,000 coconut plants. On Mago, according to locals now raising money for another court case, is a cave filled with the bones of those slaughtered for the island. Other accounts say Mago's inhabitants were evicted at gunpoint.

Whatever their historical basis, such claims are easily exploited by agitators seeking to fan the rancour of Fijians, many of whom live in Third World conditions even as their neighbours dine on venison. One luxury real estate site now lists Fijian private islands ranging from US$1.25 million to US$38 million. "There's of a lot of resentment in Fiji over the fact that the islands and the resorts are changing hands for astronomical amounts of money -- and the Fijians aren't getting any of it," says Morrison. Yet the legal cases being launched against the Fijian government aren't likely to lead to redress -- particularly when the lands in question belong to two wealthy and connected men. "The court case would be incredibly expensive," says Morrison, "and Gibson and Gilmour have huge amounts of money -- they would just throw money at it."

By: Köhler, Nicholas, Maclean's, 10/2/2006

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lassie, Come To Houston

The pet-friendly city makes it easy for road warriors to take along their pooch

ARE YOU FEELING guilty about leaving Fido or Fluffy at the kennel while you're away on business? If you're headed to Houston, maybe you should take them along. The American Automobile Assn. rates it the most pet-friendly city in America, at least if you go by the number of AAA-approved hotels that accept four-legged guests.

At the 314-room Hotel Derek in the city's tony Galleria area shopping district, dogs and cats get their own beds, water and food bowls, and a gift bag of toys. Pet sitting is available, and room service will deliver cooked-to-order bow-wow and meow chow. "We realize your dog or cat is part of your family," said assistant front office manager George Trevino, who was recently dispatched to get a carpeted kitty condo for Cher's cat, Mr. Big.

The Four Seasons, Westin, and St. Regis hotels confer posh pet privileges in keeping with their nationwide policies. Smaller lodging facilities, such as the 14-room Lovett Inn in the museum district, also allow pets but don't serve them treats on silver platters.

During your free time you can take your buddy for a romp in one of several canine parks, including the 15-acre Millie Bush Bark Park, named for former President George Bush's late spaniel. It has walking trails, swimming ponds, and paw-operated drinking fountains. Hungry? Stop at one of three Barnaby's Cafes, known for their multi-ethnic menu, decadent layer cakes, and dogs lying under patio tables at their owners' feet.

YOU CAN'T TAKE a dog to Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, but you can see its new exhibit, Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today, which opens Oct. 1 and runs through Jan. 1, 2007 (mfah.org). It features 75 pooch paintings, photographs, and sculptures starting in the 16th century. Among the pieces is Two Dogs in a Landscape by Jacopo Bassano. Cat lovers shouldn't feel left out. The Cat's Meow, a show of 25 feline-related works, is on display until Jan. 21, 2007.

By: Murphy, Kate, Business Week, 10/9/2006


The British Virgin Islands are the most popular charter destination in the world. Here's why.

LEGEND says there were pirates in these waters of the British Virgin Islands and here was one, just inches away from me. His breath was foul, his hair tangled from wind and salt water, his beard scruffy and his eyes bleary.

"Argggh," he said, staring me in the eyes.

Not frightened, I turned away from the mirror and then promised myself I'd stay away from the cold, rum-drenched Painkiller cocktails of the previous evening.

We had come to the Caribbean not to find pirates, but to find the treasures they had left behind. The British Virgin Islands have become the most popular charter destination in the world, with dozens of charter companies launching thousands of visitors each month onto these aquamarine waters. Surprisingly, many of these boaters have sailed the waters of the BVI time and time again, returning like migrating birds to the warm temperatures and soft trade winds. What is the enduring allure of this cruising paradise? We were here to search for the real treasures of the BVI.

With this mission in mind, we chartered a Lagoon 43 power catamaran from The Catamaran Company, and it served our purposes admirably. It was fast enough to reach each island easily, it had roomy accommodations and, since the weather didn't cooperate all the time, it proved to be seaworthy and comfortable, even for those passengers in our crew with landlubber tummies. (To learn more about this boat, read our test of the Lagoon 44, an updated version of the 43, in the September issue).

Our starting point was The Catamaran Company's headquarters at Nanny Cay on Tortola, where many charter businesses are based. We were delayed the first afternoon waiting for our provisions but, once loaded, Anden zipped easily at 20 knots across to Norman Island, the first stop in our treasure hunt.

Norman is an island with a legend, since it's supposedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island"; with coves named Money Bay and Privateer Bay, that's no surprise. Pirates once anchored in The Bight, a protected cove now popular with boaters. Today, charter crews consume their rum on a faux pirate ship, the William Thornton, a sometimes raucous night spot in The Bight, though there is also partying ashore until the wee hours. The real draw for Norman are the caves of Treasure Point, where you can snorkel deep into a tall cavern.

From Norman, we cruised past Dead Man's Chest, where the dreaded Blackbeard once marooned 15 men. We were headed for another treasure of the BVI: The Baths on Virgin Gorda.

Until you've seen and explored them, The Baths are hard to explain. Boulders are piled haphazardly as if by a giant, and the result is a series of eerie, half-submerged caverns lit by shafts of sunlight. You wade through the warm pools and end up at a pristine beach for snorkeling. A word of warning: Get here early to beat the crowds.

Although there are mooring buoys, The Baths aren't secure for overnighting, so we chose to cruise farther into Gorda Sound and eventually docked the boat at Biras Creek Resort. This luxe property is superb, from the tropical beachfront rooms to the hilltop four-star alfresco restaurant that has views in all directions. When you're ready to spend a night ashore, this is one of the best places to be.

Later in our cruise, we overnighted at the Bitter End Yacht Club, which isn't as much a yacht club as a celebration of everything boating. Guests in the hillside lodgings (and those staying aboard dockside) have access to fleets of small power and sailboats for exploring, a pair of waterfront restaurants give an onboard chef the night off, and a waterfront pub is always filled with boaters from around the world.

Another day, we picked up a mooring at Marina Cay, just across from the anchorage where Black Sam Bellamy based his pirate operation. Bellamy wasn't all bad, since he didn't murder everyone aboard the ships he plundered. In fact, he once returned a ship to its crew when he found it didn't sail up to his expectations. From a hill, Bellamy's lookouts could spot Spanish galleons sailing up Sir Francis Drake Channel, laden with gold and jewels for the royalty of Spain. We, however, chose to pillage the Pusser's Rum store on Marina Cay. The anchorage is pleasant and a good place to get an early start for exploring The Baths.

Next on our list was an entire island named for a pirate, Jost Van Dyke. En route, we were waylaid by tiny Sandy Cay. Picture in your mind the perfect tropical island: ringed with white sand; picturesque palm trees swaying; gin-clear water lapping at the edges. You've just seen Sandy Cay. Laurance Rockefeller donated the island to the British government as a national park, with the proviso that it stay in its native state.

Anchoring off Sandy Cay is easy. Once off the boat, take the winding nature trails where you might see a coconut crab, a strange creature with huge claws capable of cracking open a coconut.

We didn't linger at Sandy Cay, however, because we wanted to settle in at Great Harbour to meet Philicianno Callwood at Jost Van Dyke. He's known worldwide as Foxy, the owner and entertainer of the Tamarind Restaurant and Bar, one of the most famous watering holes in the Caribbean. The dock in front of this open-air beach bar is always jammed with tenders from the charter fleet, as visitors swill rum while listening to Foxy make up Calypso songs about their home cities far away. Foxy brews his own rum (try the Sly Fox) as well as beer, but it's the convivial atmosphere that draws the crowds every night.

By this point in our cruise, it was apparent that there were several reasons (besides the treasures we'd found) why boaters come back to the BVI. For one thing, the weather is not just pleasantly mild, it's predictable. We hit a front coming through so we had more wind than usual, but we adjusted our routes to fit and pressed on. Sunny skies and mild trade winds are the norm. Easy navigation is another plus in the BVI, with good charts, detailed guidebooks and islands that are within view of each other. Underwater dangers are clearly marked and the buoyage system is good, plus fog is an unknown here.

There aren't many marinas, but there's a system of reasonably priced mooring buoys ($25 a night) at popular destinations, so you don't have to anchor out every night. And, with more than 60 islands and cays in an area roughly 32 miles by 15 miles, there's good reason to come back time after time. You can't possibly see it all in one charter.

From Jost Van Dyke, it's a short hop across to Soper's Hole, a natural harbor at the west end of Tortola that might have been designed by Walt Disney if he weren't busy creating "Pirates of the Caribbean." Lining the full-service marina are brightly colored shops and buildings that are almost a caricature of island style, but fun nevertheless. Soper's is a good first stop for charterers arriving from the U.S. Virgin Islands since Customs and Immigration can clear you into the BVI. Soper's Hole is well-protected in almost any conditions.

Returning our Lagoon power catamaran to Nanny Cay was difficult, but we had proven that the real treasures of the British Virgin Islands aren't gold doubloons or buried jewels, but the sights and delights that draw charterers back year after year.

The Ultimate Sea Trial
By chartering, you can closely evaluate the boat you want to buy.

CHARTERING HAS A LOT OF BENEFITS, including one for those who are thinking about buying a new boat for use in their home waters. Charter operations in the U.S., Bahamas and Caribbean have popular production boat models in their fleet. If you charter one, you'll have the opportunity to really evaluate that model.

Had we not chartered the Lagoon 43 (above) in the BVI, we wouldn't have realized the value of the lounge on the bow; it was the most comfortable seat on the boat, especially in the evening at anchor. It also might not have been apparent in a short sea trial without guests present that more seating area on the bridge would be desirable (new Lagoons have an enlarged flybridge for just this reason). We a so found that the cockpit icemaker was a lot less useful than a cockpit fridge, which wouldn't be obvious on a day outing.

Since they've been in production for so many years, Grand Banks are probably the most popular boats in charter fleets. Grand Banks Yachts has a list of companies that charter its boats on its, but the largest fleet is in the British Virgins at Trawlers in Paradise, which also has Nordic Tugs and Lagoon powercats.

Mainship also has a Web site listing of charter companies.

Blue Pacific Yacht Charters in the Pacific Northwest has a mixed fleet of models from builders like Grand Banks, Bayliner, Meridian, Chris-Craft, Maxum, Silverton, Nordhavn and Carver. Other Northwest charter companies include Island Cruising, with Carver and Meridian, and Cooper Boating, with Meridian, Bayliner, Grand Banks and Ocean Alexander.

In warmer climates, Southwest Florida Yachts has Grand Banks, Mainship and Jefferson, while VIP Yacht Charters in the Virgin Islands has a fleet filled with Jefferson and Tarquin models.

This is just the tip of the iceberg; many other charter companies have production powerboats in their fleets. With a little Internet surfing you could find just the boat you want to try out.

By: Caswell, Chris, MotorBoating, Oct2006

The Geographical Good Guide Guide

Helping you choose that vitally important, but often rather confusing, item of kit: the guidebook Berlitz Hide This… Phrase Book

What are they like?

These concise, pocket-sized phrase books offer less formal terms and phrases for a range of typical circumstances that younger travellers might encounter on holiday. They are currently available for French, Italian and Spanish.

Who are they for?

Judging from the design, the use of 'modernised' English ("Wanna speak some Spanish?" and "Partyin' with the locals") and sections that cover extreme sports, hangover cures, breaking up after a holiday fling and the best tobacco, these "ultra-hip illustrated phrase books" are definitely aimed at younger travellers.

Strong points

They're small, cheap (£4.99) and contain a variety of useful phrases.

Not so strong points

The informal, modernised English can get pretty irritating, as can the book's general tone. And if you're at all curious about a language's basic grammar and structure, you'll have to look elsewhere.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Ghosts of Calcutta

Hugh Purcell finds stirring memories of the British Rig in this thriving city, a far cry from its dreadful reputation of a generation ago

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT CALCUTTA ATTRACTS two kinds of visitors, those seeking sainthood by extreme acts of philanthropy and those seeking their past. I belong to the second category. The first time I visited India I felt I had been there before and nowhere do the ghosts of our collective past return more evocatively than in the first capital of the British Raj.

Today Kolkata, as it is now renamed, does not deserve its bad reputation. Kipling called it the 'city of dreadful night' and at times in its history it has indeed seemed that 'above the packed and pestilential town, Death looked down'. In the early 1970s for instance, when it was inundated with refugees from East Pakistan, the travel writer Simon Winchester wrote of 'the hot stench of the slow-decaying poor, the mobs flowing ceaselessly over the Howrah bridge, the treacle of the Hooghly swamps below, the bent and broken limbs and the rotting rubbish piles and the screeching horns and the rickshaw bells and the infuriating calm of the cud-chewing cows.' I remember it too from the Louis Malle documentary film Calrutta (1970), which the Indian Government objected to because its reality denigrated the country. Today's Bengalis do not like the legacy of Mother Theresa either. Whatever you think about her extreme philanthropy, it has been estimated that she cost the city over four billion dollars in lost revenue. Tourists are still frightened off by the images propagated by the Missionaries of Charity, images of begging bowls, of flies on a dying face. Please do not be pui off. In my last two visits to Calcutta I have not encountered this public nightmare and, even if it exists, follow the Paul Scott advice on India and 'seek the scent behind the smell'.

The most evocative view of Calcutta is from the Hooghly river. Take a boat from Fairlie ghat near BBD Bagh, formerly Dalhousie Square where the British built their first fort in 1696. Chug under the Howrah bridge, that singlespan, grey steel lattice edifice that expands four feet in hot weather and carries a million people daily between Howrah on the west bank and Calcutta proper on the east (for India, add a nought to all statistics). On both sides you pass semi-ruins of the old 'go-downs' (an Anglo-Indian word for warehouse where the goods were 'laid down*) factories and counting houses. Then from Garden Reach to Howrah are the long lines of wharves where once the massed masts and then funnels of Victorian merchant steamers crowded the view. For the groundwork of the old imperial impetus is still there, crumbling but visible. Walk along Strand Road South and search on the walls for the faded announcements of trade — First Class Tailors, Hamilton the Jewellers, Spences Hotel.

Calcutta was built by British merchants, by the Mr Five-percents. The first of these was the East India Company's agent Job Charnock who settled on the Hooghly in 1690, little more than 800 years ago. Calcutta is a young city, nearly a century junior to New York, but it grew with a restless energy, some would say with greed. Very soon it became a gigantic emporium. Jute, tea, rice and cotton were transported from all points east and stored along the Hooghly before being shipped on to Europe. And it was the boxwallahs of empire who were the last to leave. It was not the dissolution of the Raj in 1947 but India's economic policy in the 1960s that slowly forced the British out.

Their departure is chronicled on the honours boards of the Tollygungc Club where the Caruthers CBE become Bannerjees between 1955-65. The Tolly' is indeed an 'island of imperial memories' (in the words of Winchester) though the neighbouring 'neat and self-satisfied Calcutta suburbs that John Betjeman might easily recognise' have gone, as have the Joan Hunter-Dunns from the Club tennis courts. Now the members are the new nabobs of Calcutta, Marwari and Bengali businessmen with their families. The last British to leave were Bob and Anne Wright, who ran the Club into the 1990s and considered it their dvity to preserve the relics of empire including the dying and the dead. They even found an undertaker who could preserve in the hot season — heat described by Mark Twain as 'enough to make a brass doorknob mushy' — the bodies of deceasetl Britons long enough for their families to fly out for the funeral. Their most conspicuous achievement, as members of BACSA (British Association of Cemeteries in South Asia), is the restoration of South Park Cemetery. Here the British ghosts live in a city of the dead that was founded in 'the golden age' of Calcutta 200 years ago.

The ostentatious tombs of Georgian classical design are a monument to the richest, most elegant colonial city of all, to the City of Palaces or the St Petersburg of the East as it was called. According to the famous diarist William Hickey, who worked at this time as an attorney, it was also inward looking and self-regarding, greedy and sinful. Poor Rose Aylmer whose tomb in South Park relates that death was caused 'by an addiction to pineapples' must be absolved. The poet Walter Savage Landor certainly thought so: 'Ah, what avails the sceptered race!/Ah, what the form divine!/What every virtue, every grace!/Rose Aylmer, all were thine'. Beyond redemption were the many Writers, as the clerks were called, who died of venereal diseases caught in the brothels that lined the back streets, a result of the scarcity of Rose Aylmers, for in 1800 there were only 250 young British women in a town of 4,000 young men.

India has hundreds of British cemeteries wherein He buried up to two million fatalities of the Raj. Identified by their Victorian Gothic porches they are mostly melancholy places that tell of premature and forlorn death: 'Her only fault was that she left me'. The polished brass plaques in the metropolitan cathedral of St Paul's, Calcutta, tell altogether different stories: of the grandiosity of empire, of the superiority of 'the Heaven born', as the Indian Civil Service was called. Here is a monument to a judge who was also a champion pigsticker, with the smug encomium 'Well done, thy good and faithful servant'. It is tempting to imagine the congregation of sixty years ago, surrounded by marble statuary and cooled by ranks of electric fans, singing the hymn of imperial retreat: 'So be it Lord, thy throne shall never like earth's proud empires pass away'.

Separated on the south side of the Maidan (literally 'great park') by Cathedral Road is the vast Victoria Memorial. The visitor approaches through high ornamental gates bearing the royal coat of arms and is greeted by a statue of the Queen Empress herself, seated on a throne supported by Art, Literature, Justice and St George. Lord Curzon proposed the building as 'a great imperial duty' to commemorate his beloved queen who had just died. Little did he know that it would also become a memorial to imperial Calcutta for the capital of the Raj passed to Delhi in 1911 while it was being built. Cur/on saw it as his Taj Mahal, though built in the Italian Renaissance style, and like its prototype it is made of dazzling Rajasthan marble that is reflected in ornamental pools. Whether he succeeded is a matter of opinion. Some see a civic pile, an oversized town hall under a marble dome, a 'confection of white marble and hubris' (Winchester). Curzon wanted 'a monumental and grand building where all classes will learn the lessons of history and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past'. So the inside is stuffed with imperial trophies from a lock of Lady Canning's hair to the swords of defeated princes. What can today's Indian schoolchildren think as they wander open-mouthed through the Durbar Room to Queen Mary's Room and across to the Royal Gallery? Whose Raj is it commemorating? (The word raj simply means 'sovereignty'). The truth is that modern Calcutta admires the Victoria Memorial. The Marxist local government that delights in shocking the West — Harrington Street where the US Embassy used to be is now Ho Chi Minh Sarani — have not renamed it, nor has it ever been a focus for rioters.

Visit the Victoria Memorial early in the morning and then sit on the grass of the Maidan, looking north. Let the heat haze mask over the modern city and your imagination replace it with the paintings of the City of Palaces by Thomas and William Daniell that you have just seen. There, shimmering under the blue sky are stately rows of white plastered, neo-classical buildings in the Grecian style; elegant vistas of terraces as Nash might have built them, arched gateways through which further colonnaded palaces appear. Behind are the spires of St Andrew's and St John's. Only the storks perched on ornamental urns or imperial lions give any hint that this is a world away from London or St Petersburg in 1800. Edmund Lear called it 'a humbug of palaces'. Insulated from reality it was, spectacularly. Yet the miracle of Calcutta is that although the past is another country the descendent of the Raj may still visit it today, before retreating to the Tolly' for a gin and tonic.

Hugh Purcell journeys to the St Petersburg of the East, and considers it a good place to witness the remnants of the British Raj, now absorbed in this dynamic city.

Kolkata (Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal has a population of around 15 million.

In September 2007 Hugh Purcell is leading a tour, which ends in Kolkata. to mark the 150th anniversary of the Indian Mutiny. See www.palanquin.co.uk

See www.calcuttaweb.com

By: Purcell, Hugh, History Today, Oct2006